Getting/Staying Strong

Getting/Staying Strong

When my daughter was seven, her teacher emailed us to tell us – kindly, not admonishingly – that while the other kids played at recess, she mostly just walked around, holding hands with her friend Landon.  “Do you like to walk around with Landon at recess?” we asked.  “It’s OK,” she responded, “but I’d rather play.”  “Doesn’t Landon want to play?”  “No,” she said, “Landon says we have to get married and move to McCook and live on the golf course.”  “Oh. And what do you want to do?”  “I want to play, but Landon doesn’t want me to.”

Not long after that conversation, I said to my daughter, only half-jokingly, “I think that when you’re older, I’m going make it a rule that you have to have a blackbelt before you’re allowed to date.”  “I don’t know what that means, but OK, Daddy.”

Little did I know that she would, in fact, have that blackbelt by the time she was twelve.

I remember quite vividly the precise moment her personality changed.  It was just after she received that blackbelt.  She had always been shy, quiet, passive, and often bullied.  Unlike her contemporaries (and best friend) at the martial arts “academy,” she had never been to a Taekwondo tournament but decided to compete in her first one.  It was the tournament put on by our own school, meaning that there was no travel involved, so…why not?  She knew she was good at her forms, her weapons forms, and especially at sparring, so she (and we) figured she’d do well.

She didn’t.

Tournament Taekwondo is different from classroom Taekwondo, and the people who compete in Taekwondo tournaments regularly are like people who compete in anything regularly, that is to say, they’re competitive.  She finished last in the forms competition and last in weapons forms.  In the sparring ring, where we all figured she’d do much better, she nevertheless lost and lost quickly.

As I looked across the ring at her, sitting next to her best friend, who was a tournament regular and had fared much better, I could see one lone tear dripping down her face.  It’s not just that she’d been beaten.  She was beaten.  It was excruciating.

And then…

One of the judges in her ring (Blackbelt Girls, 13 and under) made a request.  “We have one girl here who is a second-degree blackbelt and who has no one to spar,” he said.  “We’re looking for one of you first-degree blackbelts to volunteer to go up a level and spar with her.”  One hand shot up immediately, my daughter’s.

Taekwondo tournaments have their own decorum, their own set of unwritten but universally understood rules.  And among these is that there is no cheering, no yelling, no hooting and hollering when points are scored in sparring.  Still, I couldn’t help but shout out an extremely enthusiastic “YES!” when my “beaten” daughter knocked the second-degree blackbelt on her backside the first (of two) times, on her way to winning the match 5-0.

Immediately – and, I swear, visibly – her face, her eyes swelled with peace, with easy and tranquil confidence.  The lone tear was long gone, as was the “beaten” little girl.  She knew right away who she was.

In 8th grade, three boys sat in the back of one of her classes and constantly harassed one of her friends, calling her all sorts of terrible names, saying incredibly unkind things, and generally disturbing the class and making everyone uncomfortable.  Finally, one day, in the midst of especially vulgar bullying, my daughter – sitting next to her friend – stood up, turned around to the boys, and told them to “Shut the **** up!”  They did.  For the rest of the semester.

When she was a junior in high school, she was walking down the hall with another friend, who was being followed and harassed by a boy who, again, was calling her awful names and saying awful things.  This time, the boy tried to grab the girl.  My daughter swung around immediately and kicked him.  In the head.  Knocking him to the ground.  When a teacher who had witnessed the whole thing asked her if she was going to apologize for kicking a guy in the head hard enough to knock him down, she responded, “I don’t think so.”  Slightly taken aback, he nodded and said, “OK.”

In Taekwondo, it is usually the case that earning the next degree of blackbelt usually takes the same number of years of training as the number of the degree.  Or, to put that in English, a second-degree blackbelt can usually be attained two years after the first-degree; a third-degree takes three additional years; a fourth-degree takes four more years, etc.  My daughter received her second-degree blackbelt when she was fourteen and then, right on schedule, was supposed to receive her third-degree when she was seventeen.

As it happened, however, the night of blackbelt testing was also the night of “Mil. Ball,” the annual Christmas formal party for members of Junior ROTC.  In part because she had asked a friend to the ball on her first real date and in part because she knew that she would be able to test for her belt in just six months, she happily attended Mil. Ball and had a great time.

That was December 2019.

When the spring of 2020 rolled around, everything changed.  And everything stopped.  Like hundreds of thousands of other kids around the country, my daughter was robbed of the last quarter of her senior year, robbed of her senior prom, and robbed of her graduation ceremony.  She was also robbed of her second chance to test for her third-degree blackbelt, the state health department having shut down such “non-essential” businesses.

That fall she was off to college, living in the dorms, dealing with ridiculous masking rules and behavioral restrictions.  It was a mess.  Later, when the pandemic relented, along with all the rules and restrictions, there were classes to catch up on, scholarships to maintain, and ancient languages to learn (a Classics major, natch), in addition to resuming a normal college social life.  Taekwondo seemed a million miles away.  When any of us thought about it – which was rarely – we figured she’d simply moved on and would never go back.

But then, last winter, she did go back.  And tonight, she will, at long last, test for that third-degree blackbelt.

I suppose, after having written more than 1000 words about her, that it goes without saying that I am proud of my daughter.  But I’ll say it anyway: I can’t imagine being any prouder of her than I am at this moment.

And I suppose, after having written more than 1000 words about it, that it goes without saying that I am grateful to Taekwondo, the third most potent formative force in my daughter’s life (right behind her mother and her faith).  But again, I’ll say it anyway: My deepest and most profound thanks to the sport/art of Taekwondo in general and to my friend Grand Master Daniel Longoria in particular.

We write often in these pages about how important it is to be strong (physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, etc.), to be self-reliant, especially in the face of moral breakdown and the devolution to emotive moral reasoning.  We talk the talk.  Now, if only we could walk the walk as well my daughter does…

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.